Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reel To Reel: Invictus

It's not all fun and games when your country's image is on the line.

Going Rate: Worth full price.
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Rated: PG-13 (but probably more of a hard PG)
Red Flags: Brief Strong Language

In 1995, South Africa was just beginning to heal from years of Apartheid, and President Nelson Mandela realized the nation couldn't move on unless it made peace with the white minority who had oppressed blacks for decades. You've probably heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but not the true story of South Africa's Springboks as adapted from John Carlin's book Playing The Enemy.

The film opens with the Boks in a hapless state, rugby's equivalent of the Kansas City Royals. Yet they have a loyal contingent of fans, mostly white, and mostly fans of the old regime. South African's black rugby fans are cheering for every other team. President Mandela (Freeman) sees the team as device for unifying the nation, if only they could win more games and get into the Rugby World Cup finals, which South Africa is hosting after years of boycotts. Mandela invites team captain Francois Pieneaar (Damon) to tea, and in a simple but heartfelt meeting, inspires him to push the Boks to win it all.

Freeman is highly convincing as Mandela -- and the only person Mandela himself said could play him -- capturing the South African's quiet charisma and inner strength. He speaks with just enough statesmanship to remind us of his extraordinary stature while keeping him real and relatable. Damon is the unlikely diplomat as Pienaar holds the nation's future in his hands like a rugby ball he can't pass. His teammates want to win, but they're uncomfortable with their greater role as unifiers. Pienaar soon comes to embrace that role as he draws determination from retracing Mandela's past: "I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him."

Invictus will no doubt make the list of Inspirational Sports Movies. My Royal Father says it reminded him of the 1981 soccer film Victory featuring Sylvester Stallone and Pele. But it's not just another one of those movies in the vein of Hoosiers, Miracle, Friday Night Lights or The Natural. This is not a film about rugby, even though the movie offers enough smash-mouth action without padding to make the NFL look like Pop Warner football. This is a film about two men seeking to get everyone on the same team and triumph over the past.

(Tucson Weekly columnist Tom Danehy offers more insight on the Springboks' 1995 season.)

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